The lasting brilliance of an ancient art
The Chinese are credited with the invention of porcelain — a process of evolving from pottery to
stoneware, and eventually to porcelain — that took approximately 1,000 years.
A painted pottery jar, circa 25-220.
Thought to have appeared in the 4th century during the Jin Dynasty, true porcelain was crafted of clay, petunse (or China stone),
and water, and fired at temperatures at or above 1250º Celsius.
Each piece of Chinese porcelain was created by a team of artisans, and depending upon the complexity of decoration, fired two or three times in the kiln.
Chinese porcelain falls into one of two classifications, either Imperial (official pieces made for the
emperor or for his court for ritual use, decoration, or gifts to foreign
dignitaries) or popular ware (utilitarian pieces for the table or for decoration in the home).
Whatever the Dynasty, be it Sung, Ming, or
Qing, imperial porcelain is the most desirable to high-end and knowledgeable
The Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) represents both the
apex and the decline of Chinese porcelain. Perfection of glaze and form
were achieved during the Yong Zheng period (early Qing Dynasty, 1723-1735), and the height of technical perfection was realized in the Qianlong period (1735-1795).
This period saw a burst of breakthroughs (including improved clay and techniques); artistic creativity resulting in new mixtures and vibrancy of colors; some new vessel shapes (including more boxes); and the introduction of molded decorations on porcelain. Vases became reticulated, oversized, and more highly painted landscape scenes were in evidence. This all coincided with a newfound artistic freedom in
Jingdezhen, the city where the imperial factories were located from 1402 on, supplying porcelain to the courts for 500 years.
During Qianlong's reign, everything became bigger, brighter and more impressive. Unfortunately, this era of improvement got out of hand. Qianlong became
ill five years before the end of his reign, and Chinese porcelain underwent a gradual decline artistically, becoming more flamboyant and beginning to lose its real value.
A Qianlong Chinese Export
tureen, circa 1760.
This market has risen dramatically, and continues to do so. Chinese porcelain is a very mature area, similar to
American furniture. The audience doesn't change much; it's a very narrow, specialized field, and unlike most art markets, these people
often don't collect anything else. Imperial Chinese porcelain will always command an audience.
Shapes remained fairly constant over the millennia; the classic Chinese vase,
bowl and meiping (plum blossom vase, introduced during the Sung Dynasty)
continue to the present day. Still, shape and color can help to identify a
piece with a particular period. Certain colors are highly prized, and some design
motifs are known to convey symbolic meaning (such as cranes representing immortality, or bats symbolizing happiness).
While some pieces are easily identifiable, the difficulty with identifying Chinese
ceramics is that you must know everything that goes into making a
particular piece right for its period. Shape, color and design motif,
glaze, weight, foot, reign mark — if there is one — all come into play. Other than clues from
shape and color, you really have to handle the piece. The weight is an important clue to the educated collector.
As for fakes, the Chinese did make things in reverence of earlier emperors,
but didn't necessarily go out of their way to fake things. There aren't a lot of pieces made to deceive... though a novice might
unknowingly pass on a reproduction as an authentic piece.
It's quite rare to find good Chinese porcelain in an antique store. Most collectors
deal with the larger auction houses or with individual galleries in the
United States, Europe, and Hong Kong. Though there is a large market for imperial porcelain in China, they don't have the established galleries.
Ross Kerr's helpful reference.
Collectors of Chinese ceramics are perfectionists and the most
important thing is the condition. A technically perfect, beautifully
glazed imperial piece in rough condition can fetch one tenth the value of the same piece in perfect condition.
Hairline cracks are considered as bad as chips, and restoration is definitely frowned upon (except by some collectors of the later export ware).
For references, we recommend: